As Climate Changes, 'Underwater Mortgage' May Take on New Meaning

Photographer: Getty Images

Looking to buy a house? That’s great, unless you’re in your 20s and 30s and regularly read climate reports. They tend to project dramatic changes to the climate over the next 50 years, and given that current life expectancy is hovering around 80, we’ll likely be around to see it.

So. If you’re looking to settle down for the long haul, where’s the best place to do it?

Great Plains? You're looking at higher temperatures and more demand for water and energy.

The Southeast, perhaps? The region may suffer from (at least) 60 days with 95-plus degree weather by 2070, according to the 2014 National Climate Assessment.

Sunny Florida or the Gulf Coast? Bad outlook there, too. They're facing higher temperatures, plus more intense hurricanes, rising sea level and flooding in low-lying areas.

How about heading West? Also fraught. California’s current drought is projected to continue, in fits and starts in perpetuity. Temperatures are also supposed to be devastating, rising between 3.5 and 6.5 degrees Fahrenheit by 2060.

So: not too many climate-neutral home states to choose from. And given the volume of reports out there -- like this, this, or this — there's naturally confusion about which of the few remaining options are the safer bet.

What’s a house-proud, science-literate Millennial (they’re out there, we promise) to do? Start with asking a qualified scientist to decipher it all.

Happily, Benjamin Preston, deputy director of the Climate Change Science Institute at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, has risen to the challenge. He says that most studies come down to simply “a question of temperature, coastal cities, and water availability—those are the big driving forces."

By capturing those forces in equations and then letting them loose in scientifically rigorous and (for now) make-believe computer worlds, Preston and the climate science community can articulate where those forces are likely to hit hardest.

Hot Places Getting Hotter

For decades, there’s been a sustained southern migration to states like Florida, Arizona, and New Mexico, as people have "voted with their feet," Preston says, moving for the work and the weather.

Those sunny skies might grow oppressive with temperature averages reaching five to nine degrees Fahrenheit warmer later in the century, at which point people might have second thoughts. Average temperatures in the Southwest jumped nearly two degrees Fahrenheit in the 2000s, an increase over the previous two decades, which each saw record increases as well.

The colors on the map show temperature changes over the past 22 years (1991-2012) compared to the 1901-1960 average, and compared to the 1951-1980 average for Alaska and Hawai‘i. The bars on the graphs show the average temperature
changes by decade for 1901-2012 (relative to the 1901-1960 average) for each region. The far right bar in each graph (2000s decade) includes 2011 and 2012. The period from 2001 to 2012 was warmer than any previous decade in every region. Source: NOAA NCDC/CICS-NC

The colors on the map show temperature changes over the past 22 years (1991-2012) compared to the 1901-1960 average, and compared to the 1951-1980 average for Alaska and Hawai‘i. The bars on the graphs show the average temperature changes by decade for 1901-2012 (relative to the 1901-1960 average) for each region. The far right bar in each graph (2000s decade) includes 2011 and 2012. The period from 2001 to 2012 was warmer than any previous decade in every region. Source: NOAA NCDC/CICS-NC

High heat and higher humidity, also projected, could combine to make a heat more dangerous than any recorded.

Some studies have found that people who migrate south ultimately decide “'it’s too darn hot down here,’” Preston says. “So they’ve gone to places that are a little farther north.” And other studies have proposed that “we’re going to see a lot more of that behavior in the future," he says.

So, strike the Deep South off the list, along with the Southwest, Arizona, New Mexico, California, and Nevada by dint of temperature increase alone. They’re hot and they’re going to get a whole lot hotter.

A Nice Place On The Coast

The good news first: Most of the coast is here to stay and the challenged areas are well-known.

"The hot spots that come to mind are New Orleans, Miami, and the Hampton Roads area of Virginia," says Preston. "Those are the three areas most frequently talked about being vulnerable to sea level rises and hurricane events."

So, avoid buying there at all cost? "Not really," he says. The worst case scenario of sea-level rise would have to transpire “to get to the point where those areas are really uninhabitable," says Preston.

And now, the not-so-great news: "Certainly, some areas within those cities are going to become problem zones," Preston says. Some land is likely to be abandoned because it can't be insured. Some particularly high-value properties — where there's already dense development — may be protected with sea walls and levies, he says. In other words, the wealthy residents of South Beach aren't just going to roll over and let their buildings wash away, but the poorer citizens of low-lying areas around New Orleans might not have much of a choice.

So, wherever your dream house may lie, try to make sure it’s on high enough ground.

Potable Water: Scarce And Getting Scarcer

For all the talk about “carbon this” and “hurricane that,” fresh water availability in cities and for agriculture “is probably the sleeping giant," Preston says. That’s particularly true for regions that rely on their neighbors’ dwindling resources for everything from tap water to irrigation.

The Southwest is fundamentally a desert region, while the Northeast corridor and much of the Pacific Northwest "tend to be reasonably resource rich in terms of water resource availability," he says.

So if you know you want your house to have a green lawn in 40 years, you might warily consider trends in, say, Tucson. This isn’t news, especially if you live in California, where there are currently $500 fines for over-watering your lawn.

Compare that to the Southeast, which, Preston says, “gets droughts even though it’s a high rainfall environment, which means it’s more of a management issue."

So, what conclusions can we draw?

Well, if you overlay the three issues Preston cited — temperature, sea level rise, and water availability — the riskiest places might be the Deep South, most of the Southwest, California, and Florida. Which leaves… (Envelope please.)

"From a purely climate-oriented perspective, the region from the Great Lakes over to New England is perhaps better off," Preston says.

In the world of hyper-conditional climate change assessment projections, that’s as close to a ringing endorsement as it comes. So! We have a winner. Millennials’ safest climates are New England and the Rust Belt.

Projected increase in the number of days per year with a maximum temperature greater than 90°F averaged between 2041 and 2070, compared to 1971-2000, assuming continued increases in global emissions and substantial reductions in future emissions. The left shows a low-emissions scenario, the left a high-emissions scenario. Source: NOAA NCDC/CICS-NC

Projected increase in the number of days per year with a maximum temperature greater than 90°F averaged between 2041 and 2070, compared to 1971-2000, assuming continued increases in global emissions and substantial reductions in future emissions. The left shows a low-emissions scenario, the left a high-emissions scenario. Source: NOAA NCDC/CICS-NC

Of course, neither are exactly synonymous with youth movements. And they’re not without their own issues. There’s hurricane vulnerability along the East Coast, warming throughout the Northeast (though it’s projected to be milder than in the South), and a host of agricultural concerns as temperatures and precipitation increase. Still, whatever extremes these regions are set to experience, they might be milder than the rest of the country.

"The question then becomes: Can climate change drive people back north, and shift the economic incentives around the country? Can we start to see a revitalization of the Rust Belt?” asks Preston.

It’s up for the 20-year-olds out there to supply the answer.

More by James Tarmy (@jstarmy on Twitter):

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